Photo of a fire in the Var in the summer of 2021, where the Rhône fire brigade had been deployed as backup. (Photo SDMIS)
Under the influence of climate change, which amplifies the heat wave in the Rhône, the department is now “very worried about the forest fires”. The risk could increase in the coming years due to the presence of many resinous pines in the area. Lt. Colonel of the Rhône Fire Brigade, François Drobacheff, provides Lyon Capitale with his analysis on the subject.
On Monday 20 June, 2 hectares of forest went up in smoke in Cublize in the Rhône. An investigation will determine the causes of this fire, which broke out during the very advanced drought in the department, particularly due to the severe heat wave that has been ravaging the Rhône for several days. Elsewhere in the department, in Arnas, Brignais, Chabanière, Chassieu or even Mions and Toussieu, the flames destroyed vegetation and crops earlier in the week.
Also read: Risk of fire in the Rhône: the prefect calls for vigilance
Given the heat wave that is hitting the department, the risk of fire in the Rhône is currently very high. At the moment, the wildfires affecting the department are nowhere near as fierce as those our southern neighbors face every summer, but this could happen in the coming years. In 20 years, the situation in the department has already changed a lot, estimates the lieutenant colonel of the Rhône fire brigade, François Drobacheff. “In the south of the department, towards Condrieu, Ampuis and even south of the metropolis, we now have almost the Drôme climate’ remarks this forest fire specialist.
A development that could have serious consequences for our department in the coming years, where many forests are populated by Douglas firs, resinous pines that are very flammable when they dry out.
François Drobacheff has been a technical consultant on forest fires for 12 years and delivers his analyses Lyon capital on the subject.
Lyon capital. Can we say today that the Rhône department is becoming a breeding ground for forest fires?
Francois Drobatscheff. Yes completely. Our department is very concerned about hot spells, which are more intense than on the Mediterranean coast due to our more continental geographic location. I have been a technical advisor on Rhône wildfires for 12 years and we are seeing an evolution related to global warming/disruption. The summers are no longer those of 15 or 20 years ago. When I first arrived in 1995 and even into the 2000s, bringing Canadairs to the Rhône department was science fiction. Now the water bombers attack once or twice a year. A few years ago, they intervened in an 80-hectare fire in Beaujeu and recently in the Pilat massif on the Rhône-Loire border.
“When I arrived in 1995, and even in the 2000s, bringing Canadairs to the Rhône department was science fiction.”
We think of the images of the huge forest fires in southern France…
The real forest fires that the Midi is experiencing are still limited in the Rhône since so far we have not had episodes as windy and dry as in the Var, but this is developing. As soon as there is wind, be it from the north or south, the spreading effect is greater. In the south of the department, towards Condrieu, Ampuis and even south of the metropolis, the climate is now almost that of the Drôme, with strong winds like in Montélimar or Valence.
What we have a lot of this month are stubble fires because the harvests are 14 days early in the south of the department and the soils are very dry. When a combine hits rocks, it creates sparks that can cause stubble fires.
Also read: Lyon: Rhône firefighters fight the huge fire that is devastating the Var
When is the risk highest?
When it comes to fighting wildfires, we start to worry when the 3/30 rule is reached. Less than 30% humidity, more than 30 km/h wind and more than 30 degrees in the shade. We had that on Saturday [le 18 juin, NDLR] in the Rhône with gusts of over 50 km/h, a humidity of 15% and 38°C in the shade. This weekend [le 18 et le 19 juin, NDLR] We intervened on six stubble fires, burned 60 hectares. That’s a lot for this time of year, we’re a month ahead let’s say.
Do you monitor specific areas near Lyon?
As this is global warming, areas that have not been affected by wildfires are beginning to be. We may very well have fires in the Monts du Lyonnais, around Mont Verdun… When we have episodes of intense heat waves combined with a very low idiometry rate with a lot of southerly winds, even the vines, which are usually pyro-resistant and form a natural fire barrier , dries out and can burn.
“We have a lot of Douglas fir forests on the Green Rhône and in the medium term we are looking at that because we are not immune to fires in these areas.”
What is worrying about the Rhône in the medium term is that we have hundreds of thousands of hectares of Douglas fir forest [une variété de sapin, NDLR], Softwoods possibly more combustible than other trees. Resin is like lighting a torch. At altitude they were previously in humid forests, but they are less and less, for example, in Monsol you can have 30 degrees. We don’t have umbrella pines or pines like in the Var, but we do have Douglas firs with villages in the middle.
Are the Rhône fire brigades adapted to these climatic changes?
We really started training in the Rhône in 2001, so it’s been over 20 years. Of the department’s 6,000 firefighters, 1,200 are trained in wildfires. We have 30 forest fire engines spread over 30 different fire stations, plus 23 tank trucks.
“If the drought is burning everywhere, we have to share the funds with the other territories”
For large fires, Canadairs can also be deployed in the Rhône in 40 minutes if diverted from Ardèche or Drôme. 7 years ago we created a pumping area on the Saône towards Dracé north of Belleville-sur-Saône. It allows Canadians to fill their tanks on the Saône. Two or four and they can make 10 consecutive drops each, it allows to put out the fire and we continue the work on the ground.
Do you expect big fires in the Rhône this summer?
It is always difficult to calibrate, but if summer continues in this dynamic, we will intervene in case of fires, that’s for sure. With 1,200 trained firefighters we are made for this, but what can be complicated is when there are fires everywhere because of the drought, we have to share the funds with the other areas.